Last month, after Rep. John Lewis (D–Ga.), a civil rights leader, declared that he considers President Donald Trump an illegitimate president, Trump responded in a series of tweets: “Congressman John Lewis should spend more time on fixing and helping his district, which is in horrible shape and falling apart (not to……mention crime infested) rather than falsely complaining about the election results. All talk, talk, talk – no action or results. Sad!” The liberal response to Trump’s attack was to juxtapose Lewis’s record of activism during the 60s and Trump’s multiple military deferments and lavish upbringing.

There are a number of ways to explain why liberals would follow this line of argument. An uncharitable reading is that it makes them feel good but is ultimately ineffective. Democrats get to remind themselves that they’re the heirs to civil-rights-era activism and to that era’s successes. This interpretation also fits into both the narratives that Trump is a hypocrite and that, despite his outsider status, Trump grew up in the lap of luxury.

However, is this reading meaningfully rebutting Trump’s argument? If you read his initial tweet, he’s criticizing Lewis’s work as a congressman, not as an activist. The uncharitable reading is not doing much to actively dispel Trump’s narrative, and it’s primarily consolidating liberals’ position.

This reading is pretty easy to criticize. There’s a sort of intellectual hollowness in talking past one another. At its best, democracy is a high-minded battle of ideas. But our political discussions rarely reflect this. Liberals and conservatives are talking past one another.

The exact same thing happens with our nation’s debate on abortion: One side is concerned with the morality of denying a potential person’s existence, while the other cares about placing an undue burden on the mother. Embedded deep within our ideals of political engagement is the idea of a Hegelian synthesis, wherein each side debates one another and proposes their theses. Ultimately, both sides come out with a new understanding, an intellectual synthesis, with both sides being bettered. In reality, debaters just keep going back and forth endlessly.

But the United States is not functioning anywhere close to those vague democratic ideals. It’s important that no democracy truly be at that level. Realistically, it’s impossible to expect every American to substantively understand every angle of an issue and then substantively evaluate the pros and cons of each side. Once we’ve accepted that, we can understand the political value these sorts of arguments have. Controlling the way that a story is told allows you to guide the ensuing conversation and help people on the fence or shift the timbre of conversation.

This makes logical sense, but it’s also been empirically proven to be the case. A 1997 study showed participants two news stories about a planned Ku Klux Klan march. The first framed the issue as one of freedom of speech: Should the KKK be allowed to march? The second framed portrayed the discussion as circling around civic order: Would the KKK’s march threaten people’s lives?

Predictably, when the march went through the first frame, people were more tolerant of the KKK’s speeches by about 30 percentage points and more supportive of the march by about 20 points. The opposite happened when people were exposed to the public safety frame. Interestingly, studies have shown that framing effects are most powerful among better students and more educated people, so it’s not as though this strategy is a way to shape the masses.

Even though it’s not the most intellectually glamorous rhetorical strategy, changing frames has been shown to be very effective. But there are going to be people who are resistant to these different frames. Framing effects can be effective for people without strong views on a topic, but don’t be surprised when these arguments fail to move the needle much.

Additionally, a key moderating factor for a group’s ability to control the frame is not only about the relative merit of the frame, but also about how loud they are. Trump is incredibly effective at communicating his messages to millions of people, which may limit the power of these framing effects. Thus, to effectively combat Trump’s frames, liberals need to step away from liberal talking points and think about moral arguments in order to actually address his arguments head on.

Roland Davidson can be reached at mhenryda@umich.edu.

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